Interns face patchwork of rules, even on Parliament Hill

There may be as many as 300,000 unpaid interns working in Canada, but the federal Labour Code doesn't even contain the word "intern" and has no directives that apply to the growing culture of young people working for free, hoping to get a foot in the door of paid employment.

Labour code doesn't mention the word though thousands of young people work without pay

There is no federal policy addressing the growing phenomenon of unpaid interns, who work for free in hope of obtaining experience that might land them an actual job. (iStock Photo)

Estimates of the number of unpaid interns working in Canada range from 100,000 to 300,000, but the federal government's Labour Code doesn't even contain the word "intern."

"While the Labour Code does not specifically address internships, it protects the rights of an employee to be paid for work that is conducted," a spokesperson for Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said in an email. "An employee can file a complaint for unpaid wages, overtime and vacation pay to the labour program."

The grey area that exists around unpaid internships is partially due to the fact that labour is a provincial responsibility, and only three provinces have drawn up regulations concerning interns. But there is no federal policy that applies to the growing culture of young people who work for no money, hoping to get a foot in the door of paid employment.

However, the federal government does regulate telecommunication firms, banks and some transport companies as well as its own departments.

It's not known how many unpaid interns work in areas of federal jurisdiction, but the Canadian Conservation Institute is an example of one federal government agency that hires them.

The Conservation Institute does unique, highly skilled restoration work on historical artifacts. Its website shows conservators removing varnish and old adhesive from a terrestrial globe made in 1835 and repairing the horsehair stuffing in an Ottawa mayor's chair that dates back to Confederation.

'The interns don't perform menial tasks'

The Ottawa-based institute hires a number of unpaid interns who need hands-on, in-the-field experience, Stephanie Vuicic, director of client relations and professional development, said in an interview. "The interns don't perform menial tasks," she said. "You don't bring a conservator in and have them get coffee or make photocopies."

Vuicic says the intern program follows the requirements of Ontario's Employment Standards Act, which defines the perimeters of unpaid internship. The rules stipulate the work must be a form of training, with these conditions:

  • It must be similar to what's available in a vocational school.
  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.
  • The employer derives little if any benefit from the intern's work.
  • The training doesn't take someone else's job.
  • The employer isn't promising a job in return for the work.
  • The intern has been informed there is no pay.

Two other provinces — B.C. and Quebec — also regulate internships.

Vuicic explained the Conservation Institute works closely with Queen's University and Sir Sanford Fleming College, both of which have conservation programs. But the institute doesn’t just seek out students. It also recruits people who have "completed appropriate studies within the last five years."

Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer, said in an interview, "Unless an internship is part of a bona fide education program offered by a college or university, typically it would be illegal." He added, "A program offered by the federal government? The idea that they can't pay them the minimum wage? It's preposterous."

But Vuicic says the Conservation Institute doesn't have the budget to pay all of its interns, and adds the experience is essential. "You don't want them walking into a museum, and saying, 'Well, I've read about that in school, but I've never actually done the work.'"

She added, "If these types of [intern] programs are eliminated, these folks just won't get a chance to get the skills."

Liberals and NDP seize on issue

Both the Liberals and the NDP have seized upon the the issue of unpaid interns. Liberal MP Scott Brison wants Statistics Canada to start keeping track of the number of unpaid internships in Canada.

NDP MP Andrew Cash is scheduled to introduce a private member's bill in the fall that would compel the federal government to sit down with the provinces to work out a coherent approach to unpaid internships.

"We've got a patchwork right across the country, and it's really unclear," Cash said in a phone interview.

Cash added it's new immigrants, particularly women, who land in what he calls "the unpaid intern's trap" because they arrive in the country with the skill sets but desperately need Canadian experience.

Ironically, Parliament Hill isn’t subject to the federal Labour Code or provincial regulations. Although the political parties pay their interns, there are anecdotal tales of MPs and senators who hire unpaid interns, often referring to them as "volunteers."

Conservative Senator Doug Black posted an online ad shortly after his appointment in January, offering Alberta students or recent graduates work experience on Parliament Hill.

The job description mentioned preparing analysis for committee meetings, policy work and "providing administrative support." The ad stipulated a preference for full-time interns and noted the positions would be unpaid.

The ad attracted some criticism from blogs, particularly Andrew Langille's site youthandwork.ca, but appears to no longer be online.

On Wednesday, Matthew Berry, a spokesperson for Black, emphasized in an email the interns would be part-time. "We have just finished interviewing volunteers to start in September. It looks like we will have two or three Albertan university students volunteering part-time for our office while completing their undergraduate and graduate studies in Ottawa and in Alberta, for which they will receive an honorarium."

Berry wouldn't say how much the honourarium would be, but said the students could work online from Alberta if necessary. He added, "It was confirmed by the Senate that having volunteers work in our office is perfectly fine."

Full disclosure from CBC

  • CBC News has an unpaid internship program that runs for six weeks.
  • Our program was established with the support and in accordance with the CBC's union (the CMG).
  • Interns must be recommended by the journalism schools with which we have a relationship. Only a limited number of interns are considered and accepted.
  • Internships are closely supervised and structured as a valuable learning opportunity.